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The sun, sand and culture of UAE

Contemporary United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one of the worlds fastest growing tourist destinations. It offers visitors sun, sand, sea, sports, unbeatable shopping, top-class hotels and restaurants, intriguing traditional culture, and a safe and welcoming environment

A federation of seven princedoms sited in the south-eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, UAE is bordered by the Persian Gulf to the north, Saudi Arabia to the south and west, and Oman and the Gulf of Oman to the east. With an aggregate population of 9.4 million, it comprises Abu Dhabi (Abu Zaby), Ajman, Dubai, Al Fujayrah, Raâs al Khaymah, Ash Shariqah aka Sharjah, and Umm al Qaywayn and sprawls over an area of 83,600 sq. km including 700 km of coastline. In a country where expatriates outnumber locals, English, Hindi, Malayalam, Urdu and Persian are as widely spoken as Arabic, the official language. Though Islam is the official religion, UAEs Constitution guarantees religious freedom to all and the toll of church and temple bells mingle with the call to prayer of muzzeins.

The emirates dont offer much in terms of surviving historical or heritage monuments. Some historical ruins of the UAE — Rumeilah near Al Ain, Al Madam, Al Thuqaibah, Qarn Bint Saud and Hili — indicate that the region was inhabited by nomadic tribes circa 1000-300 BC. Recorded history however is available only for the past two-three centuries. Hitherto known the Trucial States, they were placed under British protection in 1892.

In 1952 the Trucial Council, comprising the rulers of seven sheikhdoms, was established with the objective of adoption of common administrative, economic and development policies. This council later evolved into a federation of emirates.

The discovery of crude oil and petroleum reserves in 1958 beneath the coastal waters of Abu Dhabi, the largest sheikdom of UAE, transformed the landscape and socio-economic profile of the country. Commercial exploitation of crude oil began in 1962, ushering in unprecedented prosperity in the region.

In January 1968, London announced its intention of withdrawing British military forces from the area by 1971. In March 1968 the Trucial States teamed with neighbouring Bahrain and Qatar to form the Federation of Arab Emirates. The intention was to create a federation to encompass the entire gulf region. But the interests of Bahrain and Qatar proved to be incompatible with those of the smaller sheikhdoms, and both seceded from the Federation in August 1971 to become separate independent nations.

In July 1971 representatives of six Trucial States (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ajman and Fujairah) wrote a federal Constitution and formed the United Arab Emirates while terminating the federations special treaty with the UK. Thus UAE became independent on December 2, 1971. The last sheikhdom, Raâs al-Khaimah, joined the UAE in February 1972.

Today UAE is one of the worlds fastest growing tourist destinations. The country offers visitors sun, sand, sea, sports, unbeatable shopping, top-class hotels and restaurants, intriguing traditional culture, and a safe and welcoming environment.

Climate. The best time to visit UAE is from October-March when the weather is cool and hospitable. Daytime temperatures generally dont rise above 24°C and nights can get quite cold with mercury dipping to 13°C. The April-September months are hot and humid.

Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi (pop. 2.7 million) is the largest of the seven emirates and occupies over 86 percent of UAEs total landmass. Abu Dhabi city, capital of the UAE, is situated on an island about five miles wide and nine miles long and connected to the mainland by two wide and well-built bridges — Al Maqta and Mussafah. All federal government offices, parliament and foreign embassies are located in this compact, well-planned city.

Qasr al-Hosn aka Al Hosn Palace, in the heart of the city, is the oldest building here. Constructed in 1793 as the official residence of Abu Dhabis rulers, the fort was renovated in 1983. Surrounded by manicured lawns and well-maintained gardens, the fort is well worth a visit.

A short distance from the city centre is the marvelously engineered Abu Dhabi Corniche, an 8 km stretch of the islands mangrove-fringed white sand shoreline.

The Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, housed in a delightful modern building of Islamic design, boasts several arching white colonnades, cool courtyards and green gardens. The foundation houses a large library stocked with 800,000 volumes and more than 250 English and Arabic journal subscriptions, a modern air-conditioned theatre, six lecture rooms, an exhibition centre and coffee shop. The centre also hosts cultural events such as music concerts, classic film festivals, art exhibitions and workshops.

The Abu Dhabi Heritage Village is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. Situated on a 1,600 sq. metre site overlooking the Corniche, it offers a feel of traditional life in Abu Dhabi. In addition to bedouin tents, there are reconstructions of palm (arish) and other houses, old fishing villages and traditional souqs.

The Womens Handicraft Centre is another must-see if you are interested in local crafts. Run by the Abu Dhabi Womens Association, it displays wares ranging from perfumed oils to local costumes and pottery. Its quaint Arabic kitchen serves the regions cuisine in a traditional ambience.
The Dhow harbour is a meeting point for sailing enthusiasts and hosts regular dhow races. Along the quay is a small market with interesting odds and ends.

Accommodation. High-end: Emirates Palace Hotel, Bab Al Shams Desert Resort and Spa, Al Hamra Plaza Residence, Zaya Nurai Island Resort (Dhs.1,800-31,000). Mid-Range: Al Ain Palace Hotel, Al Raha Beach Hotel, Al Rawda Rotana Suites (Dhs. 475-800). Budget: Al Maha Rotana Suites, Novotel Centre Hotel, Golden Tulip Al Jazira (Dhs. 200-400). (NB: Dh 1=Rs.17.5)

Al Ain

About 135 km from Abu Dhabi built around an oasis close to the UAE-Oman border is Al Ain (pop. 650,000), a lush green low-rise city sited in the shade of the Jebel Hafit mountains. Surrounded by rugged cliffs and blessed with adequate groundwater resources, this is one of the most fertile agricultural areas of the emirates. The countrys main varsity UAE University, is sited here against a mountainous backdrop.

Apart from forts and mountains there are other interesting tourist attractions in Al Ain. The Al Ain Oasis sited in a date plantation is divided into several small date farms and is accessible by foot and car. The Al Ain Zoo and Aquarium is the largest in the Middle East region. Sprawling over 400 hectares, the zoo is home to a wide variety of animals from Africa, India and Arabia and its huge aquarium houses an interesting collection of aquatic life.

The Al Ain Museum houses an extensive archaeological and ethnographical collection, including some beautiful gold pendants and an impressive coin collection besides a large collection of gifts received by the president from visiting statesmen and royalty.

Accommodation. High-end: Intercontinental Palm Oasis Resort, Hilton International, Al Ain Rotana Hotel (Dhs. 350-3000). Mid-range and Budget: Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet, Green Desert Hotel (Dhs. 200-500).

Excursions are available from the Al Ain Hili Archaeological Park (10 km) famous for its beautiful gardens built around several bronze and iron age sites, dating back to circa 2,500-400 BC. These sites also feature a number of antique buildings including the Grand Garden Tomb, a circular construction with three internal dividing walls housing the remains of over 200 ancients.

Dubai

The emirate of Dubai is the undisputed commercial capital of UAE. Occupying an area equivalent to a mere 5 percent of the countrys total landmass, Dubai extends along the Arabian Gulf coast for approximately 72 km north of Abu Dhabi. Stretching along the strip of a narrow 10-km winding creek which divides the southern section of Bur Dubai, the citys traditional heart, from Deira — a bustling commercial area containing an eclectic mix of retail outlets, souqs, hotels and golf courses — Dubai is a thriving trading centre famous for its distinctive skyscrapers and modern buildings such as the 39-storey World Trade Centre, Jumeriah Hotel, Twin Towers among other landmarks. Dubai also boasts Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

The most famous tourist attraction here is perhaps the scenic Jumeirah Beach fringing which are a number of award winning hotels. Dont miss the Dubai Museum sited in the precincts of the Al Fahidi Fort located in Bur Dubai. The museum contains an impressive collection of weapons, traditional costumes, musical instruments and the courtyard features good examples of arish huts and wooden boats.

Another must-visit location is the Heritage and Diving Village featuring reconstructions of Dubais maritime past. Objects on display include a tented bedouin village with traditional weapons, chests and household utensils. The village boasts a number of cafeterias and a seafood restaurant.

The fairly old style but exceptionally maintained Dubai Zoo which houses several rare species including the Arabian oryx, Gordons wildcat, Grevys zebra, Syrian bear and Arabian gazelle, is worth a visit. An evening stroll along Dubai Creek Waterfront offers visitors a glimpse into Dubais traditional maritime roots.

Accommodation. High-end: The Ritz Carlton, Oasis Beach Hotel, Shangri-La Hotel (Dhs. 3,000-16,000). Mid-range: Bab Al Shams Desert Resort and Spa, Sofitel Dubai City Centre, Movenpick Hotel (Dhs. 700-3,800). Budget: Golden Sands Hotel Apartments, Le Meridien Dar Al Sandos Hotel Apartments (Dhs. 300-750).

Excursions. Jebel Ali (30 km) houses a sprawling man-made port and the largest free trade zone in the Arab world. It is famous for its teeming souqs and supermarkets offering literally everything under the sun.

Jumeirah Archaeological Site (22 km), an affluent suburb to the south of Dubai city, is the location of archaeological ruins dating to the early Islamic period. Large houses built of beach rock (farush) covered with lime plaster have been excavated at Jumeirah by a team from the Dubai Museum.

Fujairah

Situated on the Gulf of Oman littoral, Fujairah is perhaps the most gifted of the seven emirates which constitute the UAE, in terms of sun and sand. This emirate has a coastline of over 90 km and occupies only 1.5 percent of the countrys total landmass. Surrounded by ribbed rocky cliffs and sweeping valleys, Fujairah is a land of considerable natural beauty. It offers several scenic beaches and good diving locations while the hinterland features several cultural and historic sites. Agriculture and fishing, two traditional mainstays of the economy, are still vibrant activities.

The most important landmark of the town is the 360-year-old the Fujairah Fort. Sited on a hill at the edge of date gardens, the fort is surrounded by the remains of old town houses. The fort was severely damaged in the early 20th century by a British bombardment. Some restoration work has been done in the past, but recently renovations have been earnestly renewed to prepare the fort to house the artefacts now on display in the Fujairah Museum.

Fujairah also has a Heritage Village sited close to the fort which has a good selection of traditional houses (arish) and fishing boats (shasha) made of palm fronds. The Fujairah Museum displays an interesting collection of local artefacts found in archaeological digs at Qidfa, Bithnah.

Accommodation. High-end: Le Meridian Al Aqah Beach Resort, Hilton Fujairah, Al Diar Siji (Dhs. 800-8,000). Mid-range and Budget: Emirates Springs Hotel Apartments, Ritz Plaza Hotel (Dhs. 200-800).

Leisure sports in UAE

Desert safaris. The sandy plains stretching as far as the eye can see, broken only by windswept dunes, have a charm of their own. Enterprising travel agents have put together desert safari packages which have become very popular. A typical desert safari vrooms away at 4 p.m for a two-hour rough and tumble ride through sand dunes in powerful four-wheel drive vehicles. Cocktails and dinner in bedouin-style tents follow with entertainment provided by comely belly dancers.

Diving and snorkelling. Peninsular UAE offers numerous diving and snorkelling locations to suit all levels of experience. Diving around reefs and wrecks all along the coast can be a stimulating experience. The best diving locales however are located off the coast of Khor Fakkan, where one can view abundant tropical fish and turtles. For diving permits/training get in touch with the Emirates Diving Association (www. emiratesdiving.com).

Dune buggies. One of the most thrilling terrestrial adventure activities offered here is dune bashing on a buggy. Dune buggies are available on hire at several places such as Hatta, Nazwa dunes about 40 km from Dubai.

Wadi exploration and bashing. A wadi is a dry riverbed, often the location of rock pools and unexpected vegetation, especially up in the hills. Wadi bashing trips organised by local tour operators involve driving helter skelter over rocks and streams and are not for the faint hearted. Sometimes rides can become quite rough and there have been instances when vehicles have turned turtle injuring passengers.

Fishing. Sports fishing is another popular activity in the emirates. The waters along the coasts teem with several species of fish such as marlin, sailfish, barracuda, mackerel, tuna, jack and bonito. September to April is the best time for angling.

The article was published in the print version of ParentsWorld October 2017 issue.

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